Levelling up has been conspicuously absent from the current Conservative leadership contest. Over two years since it was made the central Conservative political pledge, neither the credentials of the candidates nor the debates of the contest so far speak to the regional inequalities that blight our country. This has not gone unnoticed in the north. At the same time, in the week of the first Conservative leadership ballot, the news broke that the north-east has had the largest increase in children being pulled into poverty. The juxtaposition is jarring.
Conservative northern political figures are starting to make clear their demands of the remaining leadership candidates. Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen has written to the leadership candidates, asking them to make levelling-up pledges, including maintaining the Department for Levelling Up, Communities and Housing, expanding and deepening devolution, devolving fiscal powers from Whitehall, and committing to Northern Powerhouse Rail in full. These are policies we at IPPR North have long championed and we welcome this intervention in the leadership debate.
Jake Berry MP, and the Northern Research Group (NRG) that he leads, have also now called for levelling-up commitments to be made by the Conservative leadership candidates. The NRG’s requests include a minister for the north, two new vocational institutions in the region, and a levelling-up funding formula. These calls are not only important, but reflect much of what we have called for, including in the years that preceded the levelling-up agenda.
The leadership candidates have only just started to try to assure the north and regions like ours that reducing regional inequality is still important to them. Rishi Sunak has responded positively to the levelling-up requests of Houchen, and Tom Tugendhat, now out of the race, joined him in committing to the “northern agenda” set by the NRG. There have been nods to the expansion of mayoral development corporations by Penny Mordaunt and localised tax cuts from Liz Truss. Wider commitments made by all candidates – bar Sunak – to make sweeping tax cuts without explaining how they would be financed, or what spending would be cut, leave the levelling-up agenda, or its next iteration, totally exposed.
It’s clear that if reducing regional inequality is to remain a central political project, the policy will need a political rebrand. Levelling up was a Boris Johnson project, albeit by no means delivered. If driven by electoral politics, the candidates must understand the need to keep the “borrowed” votes from across parts of the Midlands and the north. The two recent Conservative by-election losses suggest that the electoral message is getting lost. The Conservative Party then risks becoming the party of no place in particular.
The remaining Conservative leadership contenders and, by default, the next prime minister, should heed the advice of northern colleagues. It is understandable that the new leader will want to put some air between Johnson’s government and theirs, but they should now go big on the inequality Britain cares most about and deliver. Reversing cuts to High Speed Two and Northern Powerhouse Rail could be the new start the new leader and the regional rebalancing agenda need. There’s no going back on levelling up, whether the next Conservative party leader grasps it or not.
Read more: How Labour can own levelling up